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Too Late to Begin Exercising? New Research Says Even Starting in Your 70s Can Help Your Heart and Enrich Your Life

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It’s all too common to hear older adults say, “What’s the point of starting to exercise now? I’d rather not change my routines or start something new.” But new research from a decades-long study coming out of Italy suggests that it’s not too late to start exercising and see real benefits to your physical health, even well into retirement age.

In this recent article from HealthDay, reporter Steven Reinberg explains the study and its findings, and gives us all some much-needed food for thought as we consider how important physical movement is in our later years, for the benefit of our heart, mind, and soul.

It’s Never Too Late

Reinberg opens his article with a beguiling finding from the new study: “If you’re in your 70s and get 20 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous exercise, you may ward off heart disease in your 80s, new Italian research suggests.”

In the Italian study of 3,000 adults over 65—both men and women—the numbers were staggering: regular exercise was linked to a 52 percent lower risk of heart disease. And perhaps most surprising: “The greatest benefit seemed to occur at age 70,” Reinberg writes. “Risk was only slightly lower at 75 and no lower in the early 80s, the study found.” Which just goes to show you, it’s never too late to make a positive change.

The Sooner The Better, A Little At A Time

The big take-away from this report, in our minds, is simple: don’t wait! The sooner you can begin regular physical exercise, the better. Dr. Gianfranco Sinagra of the University of Trieste wrote an editorial that accompanied the study’s findings, in which he stated, “Even a small amount of physical activity confers beneficial effects in older people; however this benefit is mostly evident when an active lifestyle is present early in late life.”

This is likely due to the effect that physical activity has on the accumulation of cholesterol plaque in the arteries. When this fatty substance builds up to a dangerous degree—obstructing blood flow in the arteries—it can cause a disease called atherosclerosis. Reinberg writes that, “Researchers stressed that this study doesn’t prove that exercise alone prevents heart disease, only that there appears to be a connection,” but it is known that regular physical activity can help keep this plaque from building to such dangerous levels.

For this reason, Dr. Sinagra reminds us, “Movement is medicine also in late life.” Sinagra and others hope that this study will prompt medical professionals to begin urging their patients into increasing their physical activity even in their senior years.

A Study of Activity and Inactivity

The study – published online February 14 in the journal Heart – was conducted by Dr. Claudio Barbiellini Amidei of the University of Padua, and actually began all the way back in the mid-1990s with the same group of 3,100 Italian seniors. Reinberg writes, “It began in 1995 and 1997, and follow-up was done four and seven years later. Participants answered questions about their physical activity levels at each assessment.”

He further explains, “Moderate physical activity included walking, bowling and fishing. Vigorous physical activity included gardening, gym work outs, cycling, dancing and swimming. Those who exercised 20 or more minutes a day were defined as active and those who did less were considered inactive. The researchers also gathered information on income, education, smoking and drinking.”

The study tracked the health of all the participants through hospital records, death certificates, and other information. “In all, complete data were available for more than 2,700 participants, of whom 60 percent were women,” Reinberg writes. “Throughout the study, more than 1,000 participants were diagnosed with heart disease, heart failure or stroke.”

But in those who did not develop heart disease, vigorous exercise and increasing levels of exercise was linked to their lower risk. “The biggest reduction was seen for coronary heart disease and heart failure in late old age,” but Reinberg adds, “No significant link between physical activity and stroke was seen.”

Where To Begin – Recommendations from the AHA

While perhaps not surprising to anyone who knows a bit about the link between exercise and heart health, the findings from the study are most essential to those who believe it’s “too late” to start a more active lifestyle.

Dr. Gregg Fonarow of Ahmanson-University of California Center says, “Regular physical activity has been associated with improved cardiovascular health, including lower risk of [heart attack], heart failure, stroke and premature cardiovascular death. Studies have shown these associated benefits are seen across the lifespan in both men and women.” Regarding the Italian study specifically, Fonarow remarked, “These findings suggest that at every age, it is not too late to derive health benefits from physical activity.”

If you’re a bit lost on where to begin, Reinberg’s article contains a list of recommendations from the American Heart Association. We thought it would be best to transcribe them here in full. Remember to consult your physician before beginning any new exercise regime, especially if it has been a while since you’ve been physically active.

Reinberg’s list of suggested activities includes:

  • At least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity — or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.
  • Moderate- to high-intensity muscle-strengthening activity, such as resistance or weights, at least two days per week.
  • Sitting less. Light-intensity activity can offset some of the risks of being sedentary.
  • Being active at least 300 minutes a week, for greater benefits.
  • Increasing the amount and intensity of exercise gradually over time.

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(originally reported at www.healthday.com)

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